Updated | Lawyers defending Etienne Bartolo suggest murder victim was involved in loan sharking

Etienne Bartolo is accused of murdering Roderick Grech in Birkirkara three years ago

Accused Etienne Bartolo (centre) conversing with his lawyers, Mark Vassallo (left) and Edward Gatt
Accused Etienne Bartolo (centre) conversing with his lawyers, Mark Vassallo (left) and Edward Gatt

Updated at 7:00 pm 

The trial by jury of a man accused of murder has continued this morning with police officers testifying about the scene of the murder.

Etienne Bartolo is on trial for the fatal stabbing of Roderick Grech in Birkirkara on 29 March, 2017 when the victim and his alleged killer had met to settle a drugs debt. The case is being heard in front of Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera.

A police officer who went to the scene of the murder testified to finding Jean Pierre Pace, who was the first to find the victim. 

The witness continued, saying that he had spoken to Moira Cortis, a police woman, who lived near where the car had been found. Cortis said that she had called the police station at around 1:05am reporting having heard a loud noise and a car horn. She had looked out of her balcony and saw an open car and a young man walking, holding his stomach while calling for help and shouting for “Gejtu”.

Gejtu, ostensibly was a certain Gaetano Bonnici, who also testified today.

The police officer also noted that there was a pool of blood near an apartment block. The witness explained that he had followed the blood trail which stopped at apartment 3.

He had knocked on the apartment door and the occupant was surprised to find the officers there. 

Answering a question from the jury, the officer said the man who answered the door seemed to have been taken aback more by the blood than by the fact that the police were there.

No search was carried out as there was no indication that it was necessary, he said.

Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera (left) with other courtroom players at the scene of the crime in Birkirkara on Thursday afternoon
Judge Consuelo Scerri Herrera (left) with other courtroom players at the scene of the crime in Birkirkara on Thursday afternoon

The witness acknowledged that there was blood on the front door, but he insisted that he hadn’t gone inside.

He had asked Bonnici whether he knew Roderick Grech and Bonnici replied that he did. However, Bonnici had not heard anyone knocking at his door as he had been asleep.

The police hadn’t knocked on apartment 1 and 2 at the time, he said.

From the witness stand today, Pace said that he had heard the victim say the word “vojt” but this had meant nothing to him at the time, he said. 

A scene of crime officer took the stand next. He testified about a report he had compiled regarding CCTV. He explained the process of collecting evidence.

At the time of his arrival the vehicle had been removed, but an important detail was that it had only one working headlamp, which helped him identify it from footage.

He had identified a person wearing a hoodie.

There was a mistake in a timestamp in the report, said the witness. He had spoken to the Attorney General about it, he said.

Lawyer Edward Gatt said he was alarmed at the fact that this had not been flagged to the defence before the jury started. He asked the court to order him to bring the corrected report, not the one in the compilation of evidence.

Lawyer Kevin Valletta agreed and took responsibility for the error. The court ordered that the report be corrected during the break and a copy of this corrected report be given to the jurors.

His testimony was suspended.

Former police officer Moira Cortis also took the stand.

She lived near to the scene of the crime and had seen the immediate aftermath of the fatal stabbing.

On 29 March 2017, Cortis had heard a loud braking noise and a prolonged blast from a car horn, she said. “It was like someone fell on the horn.”

She told the jurors that she had seen a man walking towards the church of St Helen’s holding his belly, shouting for help and saying “Help! Gejtu! Gejtu!”

“I realised there was a car further up from him, stationary in the middle of the road with a door open and a strange noise which I later identified as the windscreen wipers working.”

The man was clearly in pain, she said. He turned the corner into another street. He started shouting for help in a stairwell at an apartment block. I didn’t see him do it but it was clear from the echo that he was there.”

Cortis had then called the police to report the incident.

Sometime later, I saw him walk out again and I wanted to give him aid but I was sick at the time. He was spotted by a passer-by who went to give him first aid, she said. The victim fell to the ground at that point. A car stopped to give aid too and the police arrived.

Someone started shouting “Roderick, Roderick”.

She had seen the incident at around 1am and had called the police at around 1:10am. Lawyer Mark Vassallo asked the witness whether it was raining. It wasn’t. She confirmed that she had heard the car’s windscreen wipers working.

Other officers gave similar versions. One recalled hearing a mobile phone ringing in the car.

In the afternoon, the jury was taken to the scene of the murder for a site visit.

When the jury resumed in the afternoon, 62-year-old Birkirkara resident Gaetano Bonnici was summoned to the stand. He had seen and heard nothing, he said, so much so that it was the police who had alerted him to the presence of blood. The police told him not to wash the blood off his front door, “I hadn’t noticed the blood, it was the police who told me about it,” Bonnici said.
The witness, who told the jury that he had been woken up by the police ringing his doorbell, knew the victim. “He would be in all the cafes in the area, in the park playing football,” explained Bonnici.

He was asked about a phone number which belonged to him. He told the court that he changed his phone number often because people would call him up “and bother him”.
Asked directly by Vassallo he said that he was a pensioner and lived off his pension.

But Gaetano Bonnici had previously been charged with usury, it emerged. During the compilation of evidence, Bonnici had been named as such, pointed out Vassallo.

“Why do people call you so much?” Vassallo asked. “They’re my friends. I have many friends,” Bonnici replied. “Do you lend money?” asked the lawyer. “No” came back the reply.

“You’re under oath. Do you lend money?” No, he replied, louder this time.

The court also cautioned the witness that he was under oath.

“I am a pensioner,” stated Bonnici.

“That wasn’t the question,” continued Vassallo.”Do you lend money?”

“I had done that sometimes,” replied Bonnici quietly.

Vassallo confronted the witness with a question as to whether Grech would call him and he would sometimes call Grech. Bonnici had previously said that he only spoke to Grech at cafes and bars in the city.

The lawyer pointed out that in a four-day period, he had called Grech five times. “Why?”
“We played cards, for money.” Bonnici said. “Had you ever lent money to Roderick Grech?” Vassallo fired back. 

“No,” he replied.
The witness was confronted with another discrepancy. Today he told the court that he had been woken up by the doorbell being rung by the police. But he had told the compilation of evidence that he had been woken up by the police beacon lights at 7 am.

“We had this Roderick Grech shouting ‘Gejtu Gejtu’ outside your window...the reason why is almost beside the point now...so you didn’t hear the man knocking on your front door where the blood was found? Are all three of the people at your house deaf?” asked the lawyer.
The sergeant who was knocking at the door had told us that you didn’t appear to have just woken up, Vassallo pointed out. “I had just woken up,” insisted the witness.

“I heard the doorbell and I found four policemen and then after some time the Sergeant came...I don’t know Roderick, I know him as China.”
“You don’t know his name but you know his number by heart,” said the lawyer. Had he changed his mobile phone handset, Vassallo asked. He hadn't. Bonnici said that he had no names on his mobile phone. The judge ordered the man to hand over his phone to the prosecutor to see whether this was true. It was not. There were several nicknames saved. “They aren’t actual names,” murmured the witness.

“You didn’t open, you didn’t hear him you didn’t see him, your brother was deeply asleep, you confirm this on oath?” asked the court. “Yes,” he replied.
The lawyer asked him whether anyone had left him a letter. He asked why he had a letter box with a piece of wood to stop large objects being placed inside and whether there was blood on the letter box and, if so, why was it washed off.

The witness replied that he had only washed the blood off the door and doorstep. He was certain that no letters had been found in the letterbox, he said.
“Had other things which aren’t letters ever been deposited there?”, asked Vassallo, suggesting that drugs would be deposited in the letterbox. 

“Do you think a person who is stabbed would knock on a door for five minutes?” replied Bonnici.

Vassallo moved on with his questioning. Bonnici would meet Roderick Grech four times a week, sometimes not, he said. But it was pointed out that he had told the magistrate that he would see him once a week. 

He had also claimed to have spoken to Grech a few times on the phone.“What would the phone calls be about?” asked the lawyer. “One 24 seconds long, one 12 seconds, one 34 seconds and one of 12 seconds. Now you tell me what you would say about cards in such a short time,” asked Vassallo.

“Grech would tell me if persons wanted to speak to me and so on.” acknowledged the witness, who had previously also told the court that he was partially deaf.
“This hearing impairment you mention just appeared today didn’t it?” the lawyer went on. “You never mentioned it before the courts of magistrates in 7 years.”

Did you ever feel the need to say you don’t hear well? clarified the court. “No,” Bonnici replied.

Having raised the atmosphere to fever pitch, the lawyer dropped his bombshell. “Let me ask you one last thing. Did you call Roderick Grech to tell him about people wanting to borrow money?” The judge overruled the question, amidst loud protestations from the prosecution and equally loud replies from the defence.
The trial resumes tomorrow.

Lawyers Kevin Valletta and Maria Francesca Spiteri from the Office of the Attorney General are prosecuting.

Lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo are defence counsel.

Lawyers Franco Debono and Amadeus Cachia are appearing parte civile for the victim's family.

More in Court & Police